Project Canterbury

The Liturgical Movement

By Chauncey Kilmer Myers

No place: no publisher, 1944.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2014


THE other day the writer received announcement of a series of lectures on the Roman Liturgy to be given in New York City by a well-known Benedictine monk. The title of the series was, "The Mass our Sacrifice." The italicized pronoun gives us a clue to the inner meaning of the "Liturgical Movement" which for the past thirty years has had a determinative influence upon the liturgical development of worship in the Roman and Anglican communions. In the words of a Roman Catholic priest: "The Liturgical Movement . . . . is a movement toward the liturgy. It means the sum total of all the efforts being made in our day to bring the faithful back to an active participation in the liturgical acts and prayers of the Church." To this definition it might be added that the movement, in order to effect such a restoration of the liturgy to the laity, undertakes to instil in their minds an intelligent understanding not only of the ceremonial surrounding all liturgical acts, but also of the religious and theological meaning of the acts and the words used in the rites.

The modern liturgical movement had its beginning in the Roman Church among the religious orders. While its effects began to be felt in the general life of the Church only after the close of the Great War, the liturgical scholarship of seventeenth and eighteenth-century Benedictinism may be said to have provided the necessary background in research. It was Mabillon (+1707) who published the Ordines Romani, the first of which records the ceremonial of the eighth-century Roman mass. Or again, there were LeBrun (+1729) and Renaudot (+1720) who made studies of the Eastern rites and brought to the attention of the west the importance of the epiklesis in those rites. In the nineteenth century the foundation of the great abbey at Solesmes by Dom Prosper Guéranger must be mentioned. This monastery became the center for the revival of liturgical music, the Gregorian chant. Other Roman liturgiologists of the century were Duchesne and Cabrol of France, Casel of Germany, Morin and Callewaert of Belgium, and Edmund Bishop of England.

[2] In the present century the center of the liturgical movement has been the German Benedictine Abbey of Maria Laach. Under the direction of the Abbot, Illdefons Herwegen, the liturgical interest in the Abbey received concrete expression in 1919 when a series of booklets entitled Ecclesia Orans was begun, and in 1921 when the first Jahrbuch fur Liturgiewissenschaft was issued. This latter is indispensable to all who are seriously interested in liturgical studies. Benedictines have now carried this interest in liturgical science to America. St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, publishes a monthly liturgical manual called Orate Fratres. At Keyport, New Jersey, a small group of Benedictines from Maria Laach, and some of its sister houses, have opened St. Paul's Priory which they hope will become a center of the Maria Laach liturgical tradition in this country.

But the Benedictines have not confined their attentions solely to the historical questions involved in liturgical science. They have done their utmost to popularize the classic tradition in Christian worship now that their research has cleared away some of the medieval debris which has obscured the true spirit of the Roman missal and breviary. Their efforts, it is true, have often been blocked by the natural conservatism of the Roman Church and also by a reactionary hierarchy and priesthood. They have, however, succeeded in demonstrating that the mass is a liturgy requiring the collective effort of both priest and people; that it belongs to the Church and is not to be looked upon as that sacrifice which the celebrant offers for the faithful; that the Eucharist is the Divine Community's response to the Action of God in Jesus Christ. The devotees of the liturgical movement are slowly but surely convincing intelligent Catholics, clerical and lay, that when the Roman Liturgy is understood as something else than this, it is not being understood at all. It may readily be seen that the liturgical movement contains the seeds of revolution. Indeed, the Roman Church may very well be at the beginning of a revolution in Christian worship such as could be compared only to that revolution earlier in her history when the mass and the divine offices became so clericalized that the faithful turned to "extra-liturgical" devotions for their expressions of worship.

If the liturgiologists of the Roman Church have rediscovered the spirit of classic Christian worship "more than lurking in the pages of the Pian Missal" they have done little in the way of advocating outright removal from the rite of those elements which conspire to conceal that [2/3] spirit. The Congregation of Sacred Rites in Rome, which decides what is liturgically and ceremonially "correct" for the Roman Church, is too much a part of the rigidly legal discipline of the Church to permit that. On the other hand, Roman liturgiologists have felt free to criticize the structure and contents of the rite from an historical point of view without committing themselves to any program of change. Some have advocated, it is true, the translation of portions of the mass into the vernacular, but the majority of the leaders of the liturgical movement in this communion prefer to act with caution lest the smouldering hostility of many members of the hierarchy burst into open opposition. The dislocations in the canon of the mass, the faulty grammar of the Latin, the unwarranted medieval emphasis upon the elevation, the absence of any epiklesis, the "hectic, jerky ceremonial," all are criticized as unfortunate historical developments. One must read between the lines to detect the deep discontent with current practice.

And so the Roman liturgical movement labors under the most appalling handicaps. The totalitarian character of the Roman discipline and Canon Law forces the movement to reinterpret the liturgy in its present form by pointing to the older traditions which lie beneath the accretions of the Middle Ages.


The classic tradition in Christian worship in the west is found in the ancient Stational Mass of the Roman Church. The picture of the Eucharist to be found in the earlier Ordines Romani illustrates primitive worship at its highest level. The words "reticence and austerity," soberness, sense, clarity, dignity, objectivity, describe the ancient Roman mass. The mass was "brief and to the point." It had a clearly defined purpose, and all of the action in it proceeded with liturgical and ceremonial majesty to the end for which it existed. It was the public Prayer of the Church in which the faithful offered solemn thanksgiving for the mighty Acts of God in creation and redemption. It was the response of the Body of Christ to the selfless love of God. That response was the true worship, and that true worship was offered by the Church by virtue of its indissoluble union with the Divine Head. But the primitive Eucharist was more than response. It was also the realization by the People of God of His redemptive activity in the here and now. This is the meaning of the anamnesis, the objective recalling of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the heart of the primitive Eucharist and the early Roman [3/4] mass was Thanksgiving, it was Thanksgiving, not for past events, but for the immediate appropriation by the Church of the effects of the Acts of God in creation and redemption. The ancient Eucharist might be described as the "selfless love of God in action" and the answer of the Community as it received the love of God into its life.

It is difficult for us to appreciate the objective character of the ancient Eucharist. We belong to the subjective, even sentimental, tradition which came to us from St. Bernard, St. Francis, Bonaventura, pietism and nineteenth-century German theology. Our interest has been centered in the "Jesus of history." Furthermore, the critical radicalism in the field of New Testament studies has caused us, consciously or unconsciously, to distinguish between the Jesus of history and the "Christ of faith" as though the former were a real figure and the latter the creation of later theology. Despite the current reaction to that critical radicalism it will be long before most of us are able to read the New Testament, particularly the Synoptic Gospels, as those who believe that the Jesus of the New Testament is Kyrios. The Harnackian ghost still haunts our minds and hearts even though we may have ceased to credit its existence. This is why it is so difficult for us to grasp the meaning of the worship of the ancient Church. For the Christian who worshiped with the Church during this "Golden Age of the liturgy" the offering of the "made-to-be-present-again" life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in thanksgiving to God belonged to the objective level. For him the liturgy was not the remembrance of merely historical events. Rather he lived in the "time of the Holy Ghost"; the time in which the past, present and future were bound together, did not mean measurement, but power.

This concentration upon the objective activity of God in the Church's worship belongs to the Patristic liturgical spirit. It is the "Mysterium-theologie." The Mystery is this ever-present action of Deity and the appropriation of the proferred redemption by the Body of Christ. That
is why the ancient Church was an "Easter Church"; the true Mystery was the Mysterium Paschale. During the performance of the ancient Easter Liturgy the Church received the heavenly Washing of Baptism, passed through the waters of the font even as the Old Israel had passed through the waters of the Red Sea. This was the Christian Pasch, the passage of the Church from death to life, from fast to feast, from sorrow to joy. "Thus purified, the redeemed, glorious in their Easter attire, [4/5] hasten to the altar of Christ and say: 'And I will go in unto the altar of God, to God who giveth joy to my youth.' They have removed the dress of the inveterate guilt of sin, and, renewed in the youth of the eagle, they hurry to approach the heavenly banquet. They enter, and as they see the most holy altar with all its adornment, they exclaim: 'You have prepared a table before our eyes!'" (St. Ambrose's De mysteriis, ch. 43.)

It is difficult to realize that the present Roman mass is the lineal descendant of this ancient liturgy. So many factors and influences have conspired to conceal its classic spirit. The Gallican liturgies (rites in use outside of Rome) destroyed the simple majesty of the Roman rite. The allegorical interpretations of the liturgy offered by men like Amalar of Metz caused the Patristic understanding to be forgotten. Indeed, as an Anglican writer has put it, the Middle Ages is a period of "unexampled liturgical decay" and that during that period "the heart of the liturgy slowly withered." Medieval worship conducted with elaborate pageantry in magnificent Gothic churches may have been impressive, but it was not liturgical worship. It represented the high point in the clericalization of the Church's worship. The Latin language, the muttering of the words of the rite, the "eastward position" of the clergy before the altar, the rood screens, succeeded in separating the people from the mass. The mass became a spectacle or a convenient time during which one might offer private prayer pausing only after the ringing of the bells when the Host would be raised to God by the priest. This destruction of liturgical prayer in the western Church led, directly and indirectly, to all sorts of one-sided liturgical development. Popular devotions "outside of mass," the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, not to speak of such customs as communicating the faithful from the Reserved Sacrament before the celebration of the Eucharist; preference for the "low" mass instead of solemn or "high" mass; the multiplication of masses, as though two masses have twice the efficacy of one; mass without communion; these practices have replaced the old Roman tradition and are characteristic of current Roman liturgical custom in the average parish church.

One can now appreciate the difficulties facing the liturgical movement in the Roman Church. But the efforts to recover for their Church the spirit of liturgical worship goes on with ever-increasing energy and devotion. Liturgical conferences have been held both in Europe and in America. Translations of the masses for the day into the vernacular for the use of the laity are growing more and more popular. Very often the [5/6] epistle and gospel are read in the vernacular after they have been said in Latin. The "Basilican position," i.e., celebrating from behind the altar facing the people, is being revived! The so-called "Dialogue Mass," at which a leader instructs the congregation while mass is being offered, is in use in many parishes in this country. Only recently a French bishop ordered his clergy to read the gospel in the language of the people and made the Dialogue Mass the norm for Sunday worship. Efforts are being made to restore the people's part in the offertory act by allowing a representative of the congregation to bring the bread and wine to the celebrant at the altar. A few years ago the Cardinal Archbishop of Munich revived the ancient Offertory Procession of the Roman rite by asking the people to bring their gifts to the altar to be offered with the bread and the wine as real symbols of the Church's thanksgiving to God for creation of the first fruits of the earth. These are but a few of the concrete signs that our Roman brethren are beginning to break through the hard crust of legalism, false sacerdotalism, and institutionalism. There is a deep longing for the Church as the Spirit-filled Body of Christ. There is among them a profound desire to return to a liturgical worship rooted in the joyous commemoration of the death-and-resurrection Act of the divine Word, to a worship which is at once concrete, objective, historical, corporate and dramatic.


The liturgical movement in the Anglican communion finds its beginnings in the efforts of the Reformers to return to the practices of the "New Testament and the ancient Fathers of the Church." The first Prayer Book of Edward the VIth, largely the work of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, is a masterpiece among liturgical creations. It restored the mass to the people by retaining the vernacular and by making the communions of the faithful an integral part of the service as a whole. (Infrequent communication was the normal practice during the Middle Ages.) Of course, the English Reformers did not possess the tools of liturgical knowledge which we now enjoy. Furthermore, they were themselves products of medieval practice in worship and so retained much of the individualism characteristic of that period. Nonetheless, a beginning was made, and the Caroline divines, like Jeremy Taylor, and the nonjuring churchman, like William Law, carried the English liturgical tradition to its highest point of development. The ideals of these great liturgiologists were the same as those of the liturgical movement in the modern Roman Church. [6/7] To them the Eucharist was the Christian Sacrifice par excellence. It was the sacrament of unity, the self-offering of the Church in union with the perfect sacrifice of the Son of God. They believed that the action of God was present in the Eucharistic action. Indeed, the similarity between their understanding of the liturgy and that held by the leaders of the Roman liturgical movement becomes astonishingly apparent when one reads their works in the Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology.

Unfortunately, the liturgical interest of the Caroline Divines did not live on in the Church of England during the (religiously) gloomy days of the eighteenth century. It is true that at least one priest of the Church of England did much to popularize the Holy Communion which, under the leadership of the Whig clergy, had become only infrequently celebrated. His name was John Wesley. But the Church in England had forgotten its own best traditions and Wesley was, in effect, forced to leave the Church of his fathers. In the nineteenth century the Oxford Revival focused the eyes of the Church once again upon the liturgy. It was a tragedy that the later Anglo-Catholics attempted to persuade the Church of England to adopt the liturgical and ceremonial customs of Continental Romanism . . . . the very customs, in many cases, which the liturgical movement now deprecates. The immediate result was that the attention of the English Church became fixed upon "dangerous" ceremonial innovations which the Oxford Movement was importing from Rome, and not upon the cultivation of the liturgical life in accordance with the best Anglican traditions. The deplorable divisions along the lines of churchman-ship in modern Anglicanism have continued as a direct result of the "Ritual Controversy," although recent discussions in the American Church Congress of the Episcopal Church, led by theologians representing all schools of churchmanship, have done much to mitigate the bitterness. But more hopeful still is the role now played by the liturgical movement. In England a small but highly influential group of Churchmen holding widely separated points of view has become interested in the movement. This group, like its counterpart in the Roman Church, has drawn upon the liturgical research in its own communion. For societies in the Church of England, like the Henry Bradshaw Society and the Alcuin Club, have made significant contributions to the field of liturgiology. The work of men like Bishop Frere, Brightman, Wickham Legg, and Canon Dearmer has continued the tradition of the Reforming Fathers above the noise and confusion of the Churchmanship controversy. Priests such as [7/8] Father Hebert, Gregory Dix, O.S.B., and Canon Quick have both added to this scholarly tradition and also have done much to popularize the principles of the liturgical movement.

Practically, the movement has meant a great increase in the amount of attention paid to instruction of the faithful in the meaning of liturgical worship. More significantly, it has meant the introduction in many parishes of the so-called "Parish Communion," i.e., a celebration of the Holy Communion at about 9:00 o'clock on Sunday morning, followed by a parish breakfast. This last is reminiscent of the primitive Agape, or of the "Love Feast." The guiding principle of the Anglican liturgical movement has been the restoration of the Sunday Eucharist to its proper place as the chief service on the Lord's Day. The office of Morning Prayer or Mattins has become, in effect, the principle service in the average Anglican parish, save on the first Sunday in the month when the Eucharist is offered. Since the nineteenth century the "early service" or eight o'clock celebration with Morning Prayer at eleven o'clock has been the usual practice. This plan is not in accordance with the observance of the Lord's Day as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer. According to the Prayer Books in use in the Anglican communion the correct sequence is Mattins or the Litany (or both) followed by the Holy Communion. The reversal of the order has turned the typical Sunday celebration into a "low" mass, and has necessitated the addition of such eucharistic notes as the procession, offertory, and altar prayers to a choir office in order to include all of the necessary acts of prayer and praise in the parish's principle service of worship. The result is that both services suffer in the attempt to make them into what they are not, nor ever can be.

The correction of these "abuses" of the Prayer Book is the aim of the liturgical movement in Anglicanism. Here again, conservatism and irrational prejudices block the path of progress. On the other hand, the relative freedom enjoyed by Anglicans makes it possible to advocate radical reform and revision of the liturgy. The great prophet of the movement in America, the late Dean William Palmer Ladd, published a shortened form of the Prayer Book Eucharist in order to stimulate discussion among liturgiologists. There is widespread feeling that unless the Prayer Book service is shortened, the repetitions removed, the lections revised, and a speedier method of communicating the people authorized, the attempt to popularize the Eucharist will not go far. In some isolated cases the clergy have taken steps to "reform" the liturgy without episcopal or [8/9] canonical permission. This is unfortunate because of the widespread lack of adequate liturgical knowledge among the clergy, and because of the confusion into which the Church would be thrown.

In the American Episcopal Church the work of Dean Ladd in furthering the principles of the movement stands out as a beacon light. In 1938 he founded the "Liturgical League," the object of which was to "promote the study of the liturgy among young people of all religious bodies." The League sponsored annual conferences on worship for young people at the Berkeley Divinity School until war shortages made them impossible. Conferences for the clergy of the Protestant, Anglican, and Roman Catholic communions have been held at the school from time to time. Dean Ladd believed, as do his disciples, that the only sure path to the eventual unity of the Church lay through sympathetic study of the various liturgical traditions, both Catholic and Protestant, by all of the parties concerned. His convictions are shared by the Benedictine leaders of the movement in the Roman Church, and by many Protestant liturgiologists both in America and Europe.


It was the desire of the Reformers of the sixteenth century to restore the standards of worship which existed in the primitive Church. Because their knowledge of that ancient Church was inadequate, and because they, like the Catholics, were sons of the Middle Ages, their desire was never fully realized. Today we have in our possession the necessary knowledge, and we are far enough removed from the Middle Ages to be aware of its distortion of Christian worship. Today, as well, intelligent Roman Catholics long for the revival of the classic tradition. Accordingly, we are standing upon common ground. The progress made in the field of liturgics during the past decades has swept away many of the prejudices which have held us apart. Many disagreements remain causing Christians to differ, but if these are approached in the spirit of the ancient liturgy, which is the spirit of agape, they may very well cease to divide us. They may open our eyes to the richness of the Being of God Who reveals Himself to Ecclesia Orans. And the Truth is inseparable from Love. Let us have Love toward one another in order that we may find the Truth. This is the message of the liturgy . . . . it speaks to us across the ages, above and beyond our quarrels over polity and the nonessentials. Indeed, the liturgy can give us a correct perspective as we seek to understand the meaning of Holy Order; [9/10] it can help us discover the essential in dogma because it strikes at the heart of our common Faith. Further, the liturgy is the possession of the whole Church; it is of the people. The unity of the Church will never be consummated by the theologians; it must come from the "ground up." When Churchmen gather together for the purpose of discussing the worship of God in Christ they rise above the dogmatic struggle. That is because they are dealing with what is holy, and because they soon recognize that Christians coming from liturgical traditions different from their own have a precious contribution to make to what is known of God. Theologians, on the other hand, get into difficulty because of the abstract nature of their interests. The liturgy is never abstract. It is concrete, simple, logical, immediate. The history of the Church is strewn with the wreckage of the conferences and councils . . . . wrecked by the theologians! The liturgical movement has demonstrated that this need not be. The writer has often observed, and wondered at, the new spirit present at liturgical conferences. Perhaps this is because the liturgy, no matter what form it takes, represents "religion in life."

A short bibliography of books on the Liturgical Movement:

Ladd, W. P.: Prayer Book Interleaves. Oxford, 1942.
Hebert, A. G.: Liturgy and Society. Faber and Faber. London, 1935.
Hebert, A. G.: The Parish Communion. SPCK, London, 1937.
Edward, Brother: Sunday Morning the New Way. SPCK, London, 1938.
Ellard, Gerald: Men at Work at Worship. Longmans, 1943.
Ellard, Gerald: Christian Life and Worship. Bruce Publishing Co., Milwaukee, 1939.
Wesseling, T.: Liturgy and Life. Longmans, 1939.
Orate Fratres, A Liturgical Review. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn.
Addleshaw, G. W. O.: The High Church Tradition. Faber and Faber. London, 1941.

Reprinted from RELIGION IN LIFE--Spring 1944 issue.

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